Here's how climate change is going to make you sick

It is convenient to ignore issues that seem invisible. Such apathy among people has been observed repeatedly in social and environmental issues that otherwise could have been averted by strong preemptive policies. Similar is the case with climate — and in some ways, the internet tends to promote picture of false equivalency between believers and deniers of our climate changing.

But this might change now; mostly because these issues are affecting individual lives and not a distant cold continent. Over the past two weeks, two compelling reports — from two sides of the Atlantic Ocean — were published. One, the 1,500-paged congressionally mandated Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and second, a major study published in British healthcare journal named The Lancet.

While both of these reports highlighted the economic and environmental damages that changing climate will cause — it is the human cost that might finally stir us out of our collective apathy.

The Lancet report, for instance, highlighted how increases in temperature would result in heat stress — a clinical condition characterized by a range of symptoms, from confusion and altered mental status to coma and death, depending on the rise in temperature. In addition, heat stress would particularly affect vulnerable populations around the world who work outdoors and lead to losses in labor productivity at the tune of millions of hours each year.  

The National Climate Assessment report, on the other hand, illustrated the effect of changes in climate on the infrastructural and public health capacity of the United States. Under the health section of the report, the analysts warned how rising water and air temperatures will expose communities across the country to water-borne and food-borne diseases.

More worryingly, the authors stressed that changes in climate will alter the geographical distribution of vector-borne diseases in the United States, such as Lyme disease transmitted through ticks and Zika, West Nile and dengue viruses transmitted through mosquitoes.

Given the economic inequality and crumbling infrastructure in the country, the report emphasized, these effects will be felt immensely within impoverished and vulnerable communities, disrupting ways of life and exacerbating current economic and health disparities.  

Both reports also underscored that all is not lost; that we still have time to act. While making efforts on the individual scale are helpful — their impact on the current state of climate deterioration is low. The National Climate Assessment report provides some practical advice: local communities, governments and businesses must combine their energies and work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The other necessary action would be what the NCA4 report called implementation of “adaptation” strategies in energy consumption — greater investment and development of renewable energy sources and gradual reduction and displacement of fossil fuels. These strategies not only improve long-term climate goals but also have a positive immediate benefit for the local communities by improving air quality and providing economic opportunities with investment in renewed infrastructure.

Every time we find ourselves hesitant to work on climate action, we should ask ourselves this: What do we lose if we invest in — and preserve — our environment sustainability? Especially when it’s possible to do this while continuing investment in innovation and technology.

Last night, speaking at a U.N. conference, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough urged the audience that unless we take concrete actions to preserve climate, the fallout could lead to “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world.” In the debate to save our environment — we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Junaid Nabi, MD, MPH, is a public health researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. He is also a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, Washington, D.C. Twitter: @JunaidNabiMDThe opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.